Mitchell Fajman still missing in Lake Michigan

The search for Mitch Fajman has been called off. He went into the water around three (we think) on Saturday. The Coast Guard and other rescue services made every attempt to find the 18 year old who paddled out with two other young men. The weather which looked dicey even on land, 40 knot winds broke power lines and downed trees in Kalamazoo; caused all hell to break loose over Lake Michigan. 40 knot gales with 14 foot waves reported at off shore buoys.

The media has had several different facts reported by the following news services. Woods TV, The Chicago Tribune, and Mlive. Even though these somewhat luminary news services reported on the event, the facts are still somewhat less than clear.

When tragedies such as Mitch’s occur regarding kayaks many important facts are never reported, and further are somewhat obfuscated by the mainstream media. The timeline of events is unclear as is the occurence of several key events during the incident. For paddlers and for the family I wanted to make sure that these facts were communicated as I understand them.

This is important to me because I made the decision to stay on land on Saturday based on the forecast, and three young men whom I am now somewhat certain did not possess the skills to venture out near open water did. I was going to drive to New Buffalo to surf on the south side of the pier in my surf kayak, but decided that 40 knot onshore winds and 14 foot waves was a recipe for high calorie expenditure, with limited surfing reward.

The events as I understood them with the detail from an unnamed source and some second hand from Mitch’s mother.

Mitch was going to a family reunion at some point on Saturday, but told his mother he was going to go paddling with his paddling club. The two young men he went paddling with were not from his paddling club and it is not clear how much paddling experience these two men possessed. It is reported that each member of the group wore a wetsuit, helmet and lifejacket. Though it is likely he owned a lifejacket, but it is not certain whether or not he owned a properly fitted lifejacket. It was never reported whether any of the men were wearing a spray deck, or if it was fitted to the kayak. He phoned his mother at some point prior to launch to say he was fine and that he had a knife and a rope. A source noted He did not have an eskimo roll. She had taught (updated) a t-rescue to Mitch, but had not seen him perform one, let alone perform one in the conditions or the environment where he would have found himself.

They launched on the river in New Buffalo and paddled towards Lake Michigan.

The way that the arms of the breakwall are formed, waves would have been visible and sizable from the entrance of the channel. Large broken waves coming over the breakwall would have thrown spray in every direction. And it would have been windy as hell. Unbroken swell as large as 6-7 feet would have been washing up the river mouth.

At some point inside the channel, I am quite sure all three boys made some sort of decision to turn around and head back. Looking into the maw of 14 foot waves from a kayak is very intimidating, let alone the howl of 40 knot gales. How close they came to open water I am not sure. Mlive states that the boys were inside the breakwall when they capsized. The boys most likely capsized when they went to turn around in the swell to head back into the river mouth. When this occurred I am not sure. How long were they in the water before 911 was called. Berrien County Deputies and Firefighters rescued two of the boys from the breakwall using rescue lines and the throw ring, that I believe is located on either the south arm, or the north arm of the pier.

The timeline is very muddy. Mlive states that the Coastguard was called at 3:00 PM, and that Fajman was last seen at 5:09 when he slipped under the water and out of his lifejacket. Mlive also reports that no boat was equipped to get near him. That would mean he was in the water for over two hours with people throwing lines at him, most likely with less than effective results. In these conditions, a toggle extraction, or a swimmer tow would have gotten him further up the river mouth, but no other craft would have been able to get out there safely.

Out of all of this information, nothing is as clear as it should be. These questions are not to put the efforts of the Deputies and the Fireman into question, nor the Coast Guard, but merely for us paddlers to be able to better understand how to survive incidents such as these, and to better judge when to stay on shore.

  • Where did Fajman and his fellow paddlers actually capsize and end up in the water?
  • When did Fajman enter the water?
  • When were rescuers on the scene?
  • What techniques did the rescuers use to try and extract the paddlers?
  • Why were they unable to reach Fajman?
  • What sort of lifejacket were the men wearing? If the one that Fajman was ill-fitted, and he slipped out of it, was he wearing his own gear? Was it even a paddlesports Lifejacket? An ill-fitting lifejacket is pretty dangerous.
  • Did the boys even attempt to a t-rescue?
  • Why was Fajman harder to reach than the other men? What happened? Were they just separated by wind and waves?
  • What sort of boats were they paddling? Could they be fitted with a spraydeck? Did they have bulkheads?

For those that choose to paddle in storms, I have to say. Know your limits, and listen to a healthy dose of fear. A group risk assessment would have quickly revealed that these three men (boys really) should never have even left shore that day. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of cowardice, I was afraid that day, I knew in my gut it was death on a stick out there, so I stayed home. Now I am left wondering if I could have rescued a swimmer.

A kayak in the hands of a good paddler is far more seaworthy than a small motorboat, I can say that I probably could have towed a swimmer a quarter mile up the mouth of a river. So sad. My condolences to the family.

I would love to see a bit more effort from the media to explain the poor timeline of events, and the lack of important details surrounding this story. If you can’t even get basic facts straight, the story is just going to cause more confusion. Where, When, Why, How. None of these questions was really answered with any clarity.


  1. Thank you for any other great article. Where else could anybody get that type of info in such an ideal manner of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I’m at the search for such info.

  2. I have to put this out there that yesterday while sitting at Washington Park beach, we noticed a blue kayak in the water. We notified the coast guard and they did go retrieve it at about 1:30 p.m.

  3. We were/are very shocked and saddened to hear the tragic news.

    My mother, sister and I went to the beach to watch the waves.

    We never left the car, but we did see Mitch and his friends arrive at the beach. They were laughing, running in the sand, having a good time with each other and just enjoying life. Watching them had made us smile and comment on how carefree and happy they were.

    We left the beach while they were getting their wetsuits on.

    Our hearts hurt for Nick Casmir-Lang, John Basso, their families, and those they love. We are sending good thoughts and prayers for a healthy recovery.

    Our hearts are broken for Michell Fajman, his family and those they love.

    We remember you in our thoughts and prayers.

    We are left with the image of them on the beach, running in the sand, enjoying life, smiling and laughing with each other.

    We hope our image of your beautiful son will help to soften your pain.

  4. Patricia,

    The north side of the breakwall? That\’s interesting. Facing north towards the lake? Or on the north side facing south?

    • This would be northeast direction. The crews were all on the rocks facing that way. I brought my boat into the channel and all police and rescue people were facing the opposite way. A helicopter was above searching. It was scary and very sad. I almost drowned before; so I felt very sad for his family.

  5. My neighbors from the local marina saw them that afternoon. We were having a chili cookoff that evening and saw the helicopter above fly over all night. My neighbors stated they wished they would have said something to them about not to go in the water. They saw them put their kayaks in the channel and they all got pushed back into the sand from the high winds.

    A friend and I went down to the beach on Sunday around 11 a.m. The police chief told the WNDU news crew and they relayed to us that they had life jackets on; but Mitch’s came off. They said they were on the North side of the break wall.

    I was boating in the channel around 5 p.m. that day and we noticed all that was going on. We say several approximately (7) people on the breakwall facing north.

    I am so very sad for this family. It was a terrible situation. Next time if I see kids or my neighbors do; I am definite we will deter anyone from going out.

  6. I am a student of Minooka Community High School. I went to school with Fajman. His death struck our little town of Minooka and put us all in a deep depression. We have had a silent few days, and will continue. My best wishes go to his family because I know what they are going through. My brother drowned too. Minooka is a small town, and we are one big family. His death brought everyone closer in tears, sarrows, and sadness. Everyone is praying for you Mitch. And thanks to us yearbook people, we are creating a page for you. Rest in peace Mitch Fajman, we love you. We will forever miss you. In remembrance of Mitchell Fajman, Minooka is wearing red on Tuesday, October 18th, 2011. We love you.

  7. just to reiterate my comments

    Re: Janee mentioned that Mitch did not paddle very much

    I was truly unaware of the amount of paddling that Mitch did in his own free time.

    I did teach him a T-Rescue and he demonstrated it proficently on flat water.

    Again these are high school Boys….Anyone who’s anyone knows how perfectly well meaning kids, that are placed in groups can fall pray to the negatives of group dynamics. Nobody wants to be the nonconformist and step up and say “NO, I don’t think this is a good idea!” High school kids want to be accepted by their peers and sometimes this cohesive need, “leads” them down a less than wise pathway.

    I was familiar with Mitch’s demeanor as we worked side by side all year long. Mitch was not a thrill seeker he was a very responsible levelheaded kid who by himself would have never chosen to do this. Decision making skills change as we move forward throughout the lifecycle. This is an unfortunate tragedy

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  9. Thank you for putting this out there. My daughter is a Junior at Minooka High and my nephew was friends with Mitch. It’s been devastating to the small community of Minooka and I have been really aggravated with the lack of detail of these reports out there. While I do understand that things happen and the waters can be dangerous I do not find any comfort in any of the stories when people who are supposed to be trained to save others in the water could not rescuse this boy which they were close enough to see “slip from his lifejacket” and become sumerged. It just does not make sense, especially when one of the boys didn’t need rescue and made it to the rocks himself. I just do not understand the stories – they do not make sense at all and there are so many people now left wondering what really happened. It is a very unfortunate occurance and my heart goes out to the family of Mitch and those friends who are going through such a great loss. I know as a parent I would want answers and none of this adds up right now.

    Thank you for the taking the time to post this.

  10. Well put, Keith. I e-mailed USCG with a request for clarification on a number of issues. Will post on CASKA if I get a reply.

  11. As a long time family friend from ILL of Mitch, I would like to thank you for this article. We have been searching for answers to the questions that you explained in this article. Even understanding the danger that they were entering it is nice to finally see someone not calling them stupid and realize that we don’t have all the details that we should espically if they were searching for hours. Thank you for you kind words and prayers.